June was our time to make the long and scary drive up through Canada and into Alaska. I won’t get into much more detail on the drive as I already covered most of it, but as always, I’ll break down the costs and add some more details along the way. After floundering a bit in Washington and staying in casinos for five nights in a row due mostly to exhaustion, we hoped Alaska would renew our energy and let us finish our trip on a high note… and Alaska delivered.
As with previous travels to scary places like Myanmar and Vietnam, the fear quickly subsides as the journey progresses. The unknowns become answered, and the fear and anxiety lightens as we progressed in the journey. Alaska went from a far away dream, to one of our most desired destinations to revisit. Combined with the amazingness of Canada, it has quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and the expenses were quite manageable.
Total June Cost: $3,733
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $124
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon
Total Miles: Approx 4,500
We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best as our Canadian and Alaskan journey began. We loaded up on groceries in Washington and scouted out free sites along the route. Although the total driving miles were quite daunting, gas prices were much lower than we had planned, thanks to a favorable Canadian exchange rate along with cheaper gas prices overall. Amazingly, we spent less in June than we did in four other months while on the road! We skipped some of the things we might have done if we were on a regular one-week type vacation, but those are the financial sacrifices we’re willing to make to enjoy such a long journey. Let’s get into the details:
Alaska was the planned highlight of our trip even before we started renovating Penny Lane, so the chances of disappointment were pretty high. We could drive 60 hours through backwoods wilderness to find a fake Alaskan tourist town full of tourists and domesticated bears*. Instead, we found the Alaska we hoped to find.
An untouched wilderness with rugged landscapes, beautiful glaciers, deadly animals regularly crossing our path and unforgettable experiences. Okay, so we didn’t exactly “hope” for deadly animals crossing our paths, but we were okay with it since it meant we would see bears! Each day we kept a running total of how many bear, moose and bald eagles we saw and the numbers fluctuated from 0 to double digits depending on where we visited. At times it felt like we were in a drive through safari, except these animals had no boundaries.
That doesn’t mean you’ll automatically see a boatload of animals if you simply cruise into a port and take a quick drive into the interior. We talked to numerous travelers who hadn’t seen many animals at all, but most of them didn’t have the luxury of truly exploring as we did.
However, that exploring meant a lot of driving and a lot of roughing it. We never really knew how easy it would be to find potable water so we limited our showers probably more than we needed to**. When we stopped in Valdez, we decided to splurge on a full hook up campsite so we could shower as long as we needed. If you’re not versed in camper talk, a full hook up basically means electric, water and unlimited use since you’re hooked directly up to the sewer system. It also included Wifi and cable tv, so you can imagine we took some well deserved time to veg out.
Actually, it was hard to veg out because we were still in Alaska! I can guess what you think of when you hear “Valdez” (yes, those sad pictures of birds and seals covered in oil), but thankfully the town and environment have moved beyond that. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, with the small port town surrounded by mountains which are draped in glaciers. We spent a lot of time just enjoying the views. Our RV park also had a strange attraction: Bald Eagle feeding. They have a license from the state and can only do it when the salmon aren’t running, which happened to be the time we visited.
We watched as a man flung small fish into the air in sync with the diving eagles that would swoop down to catch them in their talons. It was all taking place 20 feet in front of us and while it felt a little strange to see the wild birds fed, it was an incredible site. There we probably two dozen eagles that sometimes took turns and other times battled for the same fish as they dive bombed down towards us. They were beautiful and powerful birds with massive talons that could inflict some major damage on us weak humans!
After Valdez, we continued our touring which meant driving back inland (through amazingly beautiful landscape) and then diving down into the next set of port towns on the Seward peninsula which includes the port towns of Whittier, Homer and Seward that we were set to see.
While in Seward, we decided to splurge on at least one tour to see what they were all about. We took an all day boat cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park that included wildlife and glacier viewing. The trip started with the captain promising one of the smoothest cruise days of the year thanks to smooth seas and a few minutes later we stopped to watch humpbacks feeding right in the bay. To make it even more special, it was a mother humpy teaching her baby to lunge feed!
We cruised out of the bay past a Kiitiwake rookery and cut across the smooth ocean into the Kenai Fjords bay. We had already seen a few glaciers up on the peaks, but now the tidewater glaciers were coming into view as we approached our next stop. The captain expertly guided our large catamaran*** around icebergs as we pulled within a quarter pile of the large tidewater glacier. We sat in awe as we watched small chunks of ice “calve” off the glacier and into the ocean. We could hear the large glacier creak and groan as the “river of ice” bulldozed its way down the mountain and into the sea.
Our next stop was an even bigger glacier, Aialik glacier, which is a full mile wide and 300-600 feet high where it meets the water! As we approached, sea lions and otters played in the iceberg strewn waters and used them as rafts as they soaked up the sun. The iceberg dwarfed the other boats already viewing at the base as we pulled up to take it all in. It was stunning and a feeling of regret passed by me as I realized our overuse of exaggerated terms in the US such as “awesome” were trivialized with their daily use… when in fact, they should be preserved for moments like this.
We headed back to sea and noticed other boats ahead of us that had stopped. It was then our captain notified us of another treat – we’d get to view a pod of orcas! We motored closer and drifted along as a dozen or so orcas spread out before us. It was a great ending to the cruise and made us wonder if the cruise was always the productive or if we were just lucky.
On the expense side of things, we did really well. There are many cheap and free places to camp along the highways leading to Alaska and within Alaksa itself, so we were pretty happy with our $16/day for campsites. We only went out to eat once (another sacrifice considering the amazing sea food there) and kept our grocery costs down by stocking up before we left. We prepared for the worst, but fared really well. Gas was the biggest expense as expected, but it was mostly due the large number of miles rather than the high price (it only averaged around $3/gallon).
Tourism in Alaska can be cheap, but is mostly expensive. For most visitors who only have a week to visit, their time will be filled with tours and adventures… all of which cost a pretty penny. The expenses can easily justified as it’s the trip of a lifetime, so I’d say save accordingly and go for it!
But yes, it’s expensive. For our Kenai Fjords day cruise we paid $430 for the two of us, but we also upgraded to the all you can eat salmon and prime rib lunch buffet! $215/each isn’t killer on a regular vacation, but it was a lot for us.
We also eyed additional tours such as the brown bear viewing in Katmai National Park which included a flight and guided hiking, but it was almost $800/each! Glacier hiking, boat tours, plane tours, sea kayaking, dog sled rides… you can do it all, but be prepared to pay. It would’ve been great to do tours in all of the amazing places we visited, but the costs would’ve definitely set us over the top of the budget!
The weather can also be pretty nasty, even in the Alaskan summer. We were lucky to see highs move out of the upper 50’s or lower 60’s and many days were filled with clouds and rain. The interior is usually sunnier and warmer, with it even reaching 90 once in Whitehorse, but we spent most of our time exploring the coast and feeling constantly wet.
The land where the sun never sits sounds appealing until you spend more than a few days there. Here’s a sunset timeline from the Equinox (June 21st):
Yes, that’s right, 1 hr and 5 mins of darkness… and it’s not really even that dark! The sun started flirting with the horizon in the late evening, but just can’t quite make it down until very late. We had that opposite experience Iceland when 20 hours of sunlight transformed into 20 hours of darkness, and it’s just as troubling!
The locals fully embrace the long summer days because they know darkness is coming, pulling into campsites at midnight and instead of quietly setting up sites and bunking down, they’d start a campfire and eat dinner! It was entertaining and maddening all at the same time. We tried to stay on a decent routine of going to bed by midnight, but the light easily made it’s way through our attempts of blocking it. We’d block the windows with our car sun shades, close the curtains and then cover them with blankets or clothes… and it still didn’t help much! After falling asleep, the sun would be tapping on our eyelids again at 4am to nudge us back awake.
It was a fun experience for a few days, bearable for a few weeks, but I don’t think I’d be able handle it long term!
Oh yeah, there’s also the whole global warming thing. Whether you believe it to be fully caused by us or not, it’s wreaking serious damage on Alaska. In fact, if you want to see glaciers, you should probably visit in the next 5-10 years because after that, many of them will only be accessible with a long hike. The rapidity of the melting isn’t unprecedented as there were high melting periods in the 1950’s, but it’s happening quickly with no signs of stopping. It’s also changing or eliminating food sources and habits for the animals and birds, and putting many of them in danger of not living. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Back to how greatness of Alaska. Obviously, if one of our biggest complaints with Alaska is “too much light”, we didn’t have much to complain about. As mentioned in the beginning, it quickly jumped to one of our favorite places in the world, and we definitely want to return. While it can be intimidating to plan and execute the trip, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t have two months to plan a driving trip through the state, an Alaskan cruise would still suffice, although wildlife viewing expectations should be tempered.
As we reached the end of June, we had another adventure ahead of us: Denali National Park. After that we’d have a few more weeks before we needed to head back to the “lower 49”, as the locals called it. Reality would soon be calling, but first we had more exploring.
*Okay, so there was one of those “fake” Alaskan tourist towns and that was Skagway. While it might have been a cool frontier town at some point, now it’s filled with tourist shops selling diamonds, furs and all sorts of tourist goods. The other towns make fun of it and say the cruise ship companies own it!
**I used to be a shower every day kind of guy, but when water and holding tanks are limited, it’s not so easy! We switched to showering once every two days… and a few times beyond that! As we learned when traveling the world, people don’t notice they smell… but luckily we had each other to keep ourselves accountable!
***We shared our Kenai Fjords cruise with around 80 other people. While it take away some of the experience when everyone rushes to the side of the boat and you’re trapped three rows back, it’s nice knowing your large catamaran won’t be sunken like the Titanic!